Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 huh?

Well that was 2013.
I don't think I'm yet used to putting 20xx in front of the year let alone 201x...
I'd like to thank everyone who looks in on this corner of the tubes and puts up with my mostly coherent ranting. This blog as seen a great up tick in traffic over the past twelve months; something that has buoyed me to write and post more often and focus this blog into the lean mean pop culture yakking machine it is today.
What is happening next year? Who can say, a little bit of this, some of that and maybe something new as well?
To leave you for this year is something I have spent an age on this year but yet to write about (apart from that one time in a round about way). Travel to Japan again and a connected  re-sparked interest in the anime classics I loved in my youth led me to to a weird listening to J-pop place. So here is a bit, the lovely Sheryl Nome (Mayn the actual artist) with the awesome closing title sequence from Macross Frontier. The song "Northern Cross"
Happy new year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

What I'm Watching now: Babylon 5 (Season 1; Signs and Portents)

We are today in what many call a renaissance of television; a time when the writing and storytelling ability of television writers (Particularly on US Cable TV) rivals or exceeds that of Hollywood. The genesis of this boom can be found in the early 1990s, better technology not only gave us better quality video but also made it easier for transfers to be made from higher quality film. The real break out for improving the quality of Television production was the eponymous 1990 series "Twin Peaks"; a huge hit helped move Television out of the studio and opened the door at Networks for more experimental programing.

Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on television for six years and had proven very popular, by 1993 many networks were trying sci-fi. The X-files, Sea Quest DSV, Highlander, Earth 2 and Space Above and beyond all appeared on our screens in 1993-94. The majority duplicated the pattern of Star Trek, self contained episodic sci fi with some elements of a greater plot arc seeded through the series. Even the X-Files was mostly self contained adventures in it's early years, but as the trend for larger and more sophisticated stories started to become a success with audiences almost all genre television started to incorporate those ideas into their storytelling. (Up to the current season cliff hanger fueled Sci-Fi Television, or the Story arc meme approach used in New Doctor Who and series like Warehouse 13 that kept the episodic structure)
The Pioneer of the season long arc concept is undoubtedly Babylon 5, launched in 1993 with a pilot telemovie and picked up as a series by Warner Brothers in 1994. Babylon 5 was a space opera in the purest sense of the word and the brainchild of writer J Micheal Straczynki (JMS) ; conceived as "fundamentally, a five-year story, a novel for television,".
Now twenty years on, I am re-watching the whole series and rediscovering just how intricately written and plotted the series was. The series is often remembered for it's cutting edge CGI effects, it's distinctive sound track scored by Tangerine Dream's Christopher Franke, and for the fact that it came out at the same time as another space station based show "Star Trek Deep Space Nine". But really I think the elements that really have stood the test of time is its example of good story arc writing despite the best efforts of a Television network to make it all fall down on its face.

The series starts with the 1993 Pilot movie "The Gathering", like most pilots the cast and concepts have yet to be fully bolted down. As a movie it is a little weak, lots of explanatory dialogue and a slow paced story focusing on an Assassination attempt of a new Alien Ambassador. What it does do is give us an overview of it's universe and characters. The year is 2257 and humanity has gone to the stars and encountered a multitude of alien races and cultures. After almost facing defeat against the highly advanced Minbari ten years earlier, the Earth Alliance elects to build a neutral diplomatic outpost to prevent further wars. These stations, the Babylon stations, are one by one destroyed by accident, terrorism or mysterious forces. (In the case of Babylon 4) Babylon 5 was the first of this series of stations to successfully come online and serve as a place of trade and diplomacy.
The story focuses on the station commander, Jeffery Sinclair a veteran of the Earth Minbari war as he represents the interests of earth and peace while dealing with the machinations of various alien governments. We are introduced to four primary governments; the Minbari a highly advanced spiritual people, the Centari a race of decadent Aristocrats whose best days are behind them, the Narn an aggressive warrior race once slaves of the Centari and the mysterious Vorlons who are never seen outside their encounter suits. The Pilot gives us a very bare bones view of the universe JMS had in store for us, gives us a few mysteries and shows off the ground breaking (for 1993) special effects.

By the time of the series premier proper in 1994 many thing had changed from the pilot. Several of the main cast were swapped out, a new Doctor, Telepath and XO were introduced, the Minbari were redesigned a little with the androgynous Ambassador Delen more distinctly female now. As soon as you load up the first episode of the series "Midnight on the firing line", you immediately see the form that JMS's story is intended to work in. "Midnight..." covers much of the background covered in the Pilot and along with the second episode "Soul Hunter" very adeptly set up all the story beats for the season ahead. The main cast quickly settle into their roles and their individual story arcs are carefully mapped out and advanced as the season progresses. Very few scenes or dialogue lines are flippant or left to chance in this season, watching it unfold again you can see that even in non arc episodes the characters foreshadow their development with a great degree of skill on the part of the writers and actors. (Despite some truly terrible performances from the guest cast, hello Jinx) The Narn Ambassador G'kar is a great example, a basically flat out villain in the pilot organically twists both ways as the series progresses. In one episode he is plotting attacks on Centari colonies, another he is rescuing Sinclair's girlfriend and all for reasons that make sense for the character.

Babylon 5 also gave us the ideas of putting chapter titles on seasons, something that few series have really done since. The title for the first season was "Signs and Portents" and that is a theme that runs under every episode and plot development. What we see here are the beginnings of plot arcs, the green shoots that will blossom later into more developed stories. Religion is a big theme and continues to be so as the series progresses, not a particular religion but religion and faith itself. World building is also a great strength of the series, the world presented is very much our own projected forward 200years with all of the political and cultural issues that the 1990s had. That makes the world quite relate able, we are not seeing the utopic future of Star Trek but a world where people and governments are as flawed, greedy and terrible as in our own.

The season pushes forward to a cliff hanger, the Earth Alliance president is assassinated, Ambassador Delenn undergoes some sort of process that puts her into a chrysalis,  mysterious aliens attack under orders from a man known only as Morden and the station chief of security is shot in the back by his second in command. What seems to be a fairly stable universe is turned on it's axis in the space of a single day setting us up for the drama to come next season. This is all expertly done, and honestly the final episode of the season "Chrysalis" is the one that turned me around on the series initially after disliking the pilot. None of these cliffhanger events are strange or out of the blue, each is carefully setup and foreshadowed in a very tightly written manner. From Delenn building the device to transform her into whatever she will become slowly throughout the whole second half of the season, to the constant reminders to Security chief Garabaldi to "watch his back". (Or in one case "You gotta learn to watch you back Micheal" in the episode TKO)Babylon 5 season one is an almost perfect model as to how to write story arc based genre fiction, one that many series attempted to imitate in the years that followed. It's a slow boil, but it warms you up just right for what is to come...
(To be continued as soon as I finish Season 2 :P)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday: War is Over!

Posting late tonight, the holiday season tends to get one busy. So a short holiday shout out to all you folks who read my often frenzied and incoherent musings. As of this writing I have one day of work to go before the end of year break, then a meal to cook for Christmas day. (Something I actually enjoy doing a lot, so long as it is a solo operation. I get control freaky)
Something many of you may not know about me; my birthday is the day after John Lennon died. Or adjusting for timezone very much the same day. I still remember where I was when I heard the news, I have no idea if I was aware enough of who he was seeing as I was just about to turn 4 years old at the time. But I do recall my mother talking about it in the kitchen with the radio reports playing in the background. Human memory is ultimately highly fallible; but standing next to the family's old AM radio/turntable and listening to the upset in my mother's voice is a very sharp and clear one for me.
So for the season, here is a Lennon video and one who's sentiments I hope one day will come to pass.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Because it contains my current Celeb crush; Thor: The Dark World

People who know me can try to guess as to whom I'm talking about in the headline, or just take wild stabs in the dark. Thor: The Dark world is the latest movie in the Marvel films Juggernaut (Wait Fox says we can't say that) um Thing (Can't say that either) um...Hulk(?) staring Chris Hemsworth as the blonde Asgardian hero. Be warned some spoilers below the fold....

2011's Thor was in my humble opinion a nice popcorn film, nothing complicated but also nothing grievously offensive to people who are familiar with the comic book hero. It was perhaps the weakest of the new Marvel films next to all bar 2008's "The Incredible Hulk", but still a better film than many of the non Marvel superhero flicks. Thor did one thing very well, it established Hemsworth as a likable and charismatic lead which he has carried through "The Avengers" and now "Thor: The Dark World". It also introduced us to Tom Hiddleston's Loki, but that character didn't really take off until "The Avengers" imho, when Hiddleston seemed to really start having fun with the part.
Thor: The Darkworld is an odd film in that it has exactly the opposite problem to pretty much every FX blockbuster of the now. The standard pattern for the majority of the big Genre films in recent years has been a great first two acts followed by a mediocre or just plain bad third. Hollywood is so obsessed with twists, subverting expectations and sequels that so many films rocket off to a great start and have no idea what to do with themselves after throwing CG at your head for 60 minutes.
Thor: The Darkworld has the opposite issue, a weirdly plotted and put together first act that gets much much better after Natalie Portman gets injected with space goo. The primary issue is that the first act does a very bad job explaining what the film is about, and tries to seed macguffins and character points in an awkward manner that doesn't really work as a story, more as a series of connected events. This I think has led to many reviewers to criticize the plot as being a bit daft and hard to decipher despite it actually being relativity straight forward. It centers around an old foe of Asgard; Malekith lord of the Dark elves who fought Odin's father in an attempt to return the universe to the primal darkness that existed before creation. He utilized a weapon; the Aether, that was capable of destroying worlds but was stopped and the Aether was trapped (because as a force of pure destruction it could not be destroyed). Malekith was thought dead but really escaped with a small cabal of his followers awaiting a time where the Nine realms converge to release the Aether so he could try again. Now he is back and the Aether (space goo) has possessed Jane Foster and our hero has to fight against the returned Malekith, deal with his imprisoned brother Loki and the objections of his own father to save Asgard and the whole universe.
Once the plot establishment is out of the way the film brings out some nice action scenes and decent character development for our mains despite quite a large cast of secondary characters and a number of location shifts. The final action sequence in particular is great as it almost seems like a parody of FX fueled action sequences, with the convergence causing reality to bend and character teleporting between locations and worlds as they fight. (It almost plays up how nonsensical so many FX sequences have become now days as well as the fundamental unreality of film time)
The Dark elves are a reasonable villain, Malekith is played well by Christopher Eccelston but the script makes him a very straight line antagonist outshone like the rest of the film by Hiddleson as Loki. They are very well realized visually, I love the creepy doll masks and the overall knife blade look of all their tech. Sadly I feel they are made to appear potent by making the Asgardians appear weak, especially Odin who ends up being wrong about absolutely everything in this film; which is weird seeing the whole first film was essentially an exercise by Odin in teaching Thor wisdom and humility. (Although this plan seemed to make a villain of Loki and destroyed the Bifrost and part of a New Mexico town) The other character disappointment is Siff who seems to be leading towards a love triangle plot with Thor and Jane but is then basically not used after the escape from Asgard. I don't mind the Brave companions not being used in this film, or being used minimally, but something was started in the first act (the scene at the feast in particular) which basically has zero payoff later on. It goes back to the first act issue I mentioned above, it's almost like a different set of writers wrote the first act. Basically its a bit of sloppy writing, the only named female Asgardian who isn't his mother HAS to be in love with Thor, which is fine except is seems to have no affect on the plot other than placing a tiny bit of doubt on her helping Thor escape. Which she does anyway, so what's the point? Use those scenes to explain the plot more gooderer. The tension with his father more than enough demonstrates Thor being trapped between two worlds without having to make the only female hero with actual superpowers in the current Marvel film universe (well bar the brief Pepper Potts thing in Ironman 3) faun all over him and basically nullify herself as a character useful for plot by then NOT DOING ANYTHING WITH HER. (Sorry long rambling sentence but it bugged me.)
But overall it is like the first Thor film a good solid Comic book film, true (bar Odin) to the characters and feel of the other Marvel films. Probably a little better than the first as the plot and situations are just a little more epic, fitting with the power level of the character, and the universe the first film only touched on is fleshed out and seems more substantial in this film.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Sunday Sunday

Ok have a few things on the boil atm as well as the whole holiday fuss-o-rama so plans are slower that I would like. Coming up (very soon I hope) will be a couple of reviews; superhero films a real weakness of mine currently, another what I'm watching at the moment series AND some stuff for the sadly neglected boardgaming blog. (an updated post and a new review)
Again any ideas on how I can do this full time and actually have everything I want to write done promptly with time for proper editing please let me know :P

This weeks bit of intertube gold looks a little dated but is a treat for anyone who read the amazing manga "Battle Angel Alita" (銃夢 or Gunnm in Japanese) during the 1990s. It's a dated sequence by today's standards but something I didn't even know existed before last week which caused me to re-read the original series. What makes this more relevant is Jame Cameron has mentioned that his live action/US version of the series is intended to start production after he finished the "anticipated" sequels to Avatar. With luck this will end up as a non event much like Toby Maguires attempts to do a live action "Robotech", with an insane amount of luck it might be made with some of the wondrous character design and strange existential trans-humanism that made the manga so good. (Not to mention the humor)
The following sequence was created as an extra for the DVD release of the Gunnm animated OVA; not a great adaptation of the material to be honest but the creator Yukito Kishiro has often been sighted as having little interest in adapting the series to an animated format.
So if you ever wanted to see the motorball chapter done animated/live action here is the best you'll see until Jimi Cameron ruins it...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday: Jerusalem Boogie

I do think this series of Sunday posts will become a litany of how awesome a thing public video sharing sites are. Today is another example of something that may not have seen the light of day if it wasn't for the Youtubes; a live rendition of Genesis's prog rock epic "Suppers Ready". Including Peter Gabriel's poetry stylings at the beginning and loads of awesomely prog costume changes. In some ways watching this you can feel some of the frustration that crept into the band with Gabriel's increasing theatrics. Say what you will about Genesis but anything with Steven Hackett on guitar is worth a listen, imho one of the great unsung guitarists of the 1970s. (Rutherford also no slouch) 
I was exposed to prog rock from a young age and thanks to my father's record collection have a somewhat strong appreciation to the side-long track Prog epic, or Kraut-rock epic. I also don't get in the habit of making playlists on my computer much (I don't know why), so long tracks are great when I am writing or studying. (As today's Progfest is playing backing track to my attempts to learn Japanese lol)
So enjoy... or not...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So bad, yet so good: Cockneys vs Zombies

The past half decade has seen a number of booms in genre film making. First and most obviously would be the boom in Zombie films that started last decade and seemed to crescendo with AMC's "The Walking Dead"; but this still carries on in the realms of writing, gaming and comic to the time of writing. (Vampires tried to shift the shufflers but it looks like that fad has faded with Twilight) The other boom that is now reaching it's peak is in films "So bad they are good", a trend that was really kicked off by Snakes on a Plane and managed to catapult borderline scam artists The Asylum to international notoriety with their "hits" such as Sharknado. I have to admit to a degree of cynicism with this new trend of manufactured schlock, they are very one note jokes for the most part.
2012's British entry both booms (?) is the quite enjoyable "Cockneys vs Zombies"; and as a film I don't know how much of its schlock is manufactured or borne from a deliberate desire to document the struggles of the East end against the Zombie Apocalypse. It's even harder to tell as it comes from a director (Matthias Horne) who has a very short resume of films to judge from. Is this a cynical cash grab for the Zombie/schlocksploitation market? Or is this a "serious" film with a quirky idea behind it?
Cockneys vs Zombies follows the misadventures of a pair of brothers, Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) and Andy(Harry Treadaway) , who decide to rob a bank in order to save their grandfather's (Alan Ford) retirement home. They team up with a pair of hopeless criminals (one just incompetent, the other psychotic) and their way too talented Cousin Katy. (Michelle Ryan. No small celeb crush on her at all here... I even tried to like the Bionic Woman reboot) While the group proceeds to mess up a bank robbery, two workmen accidentally unleash the Romero apocalypse on East London and the dead rise to consume the flesh of the living. So the group is tasked with fighting their way across London to help save their grandfather and other occupants of the retirement home from the growing undead hoard.
The Undead here are pretty much your stock standard Romero type, slow moving, killed by destroying the brain and infectious. The Cockneys are reflections of a Guy Richie film (literally in the case of Alan Ford) and Eastenders (again literally with Michelle Ryan) mashed together and the film does do the genre smash well. The Bankrobbery is a good reason why people in London would have the firepower needed to do traditional Zombie blasting, and the mcguffin of the characters having to deal with an illegal arms trader to get them is quite logically followed through. Despite the films zany meta-premise it generally plays it straight, a few of the characters and situations are amusing but that simply pushes it into dark comedy as opposed to ridiculousness. This intent to actually do a "Lock Stock meets Dawn of the dead" mash up rather than a Shark filled train wreck is what makes this film endearing.
The characters are simple and generally very satisfying, of course they are often stereotypes but, especially with the inhabitants of the retirement home, they are portrayed with a wonderful amount of charm. (and really you can't be surprised that a film with this title would truck in stereotypes?) Ultimately the simple characters , portrayed well, in a slightly zany but serious situation hangs together and entertains remarkably well. The story beats are well paced, the action is generally good and its entertaining above all. (Although I am unsure Alan Ford is able to be not entertaining) It's no "Shaun of the Dead" by any stretch, it's not as clever or witty. But it isn't a one note joke either, it hangs together as a heist movie in the first half and a decent Zombie flick in the second and gives us some light laughs that derive from the characters and the situations they are put in.
The only criticism that can really be leveled is the film does lack good horror elements; something that some modern Zombie media tends towards. The Zombies are much more an environmental issue than any sort of horror element, in fact these have to be some of the weakest and slowest Zombies to date. (Just look at the Walker vs Walking frame in the preview clip above)
But overall, not high art and not genre changing but you indeed get exactly what it says on the box and presented in an entertaining manner at that. It's a great film to watch with friends, beer and snacks.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lazy Sunday post

In the interest of posting more often (something I'm very bad at to be honest) I thought I'd try to post every Sunday with stuff I am reading and watching. Some people do this sort of posting very well (Ping Kate, seriously go read her blog it's awesome) and I'm giving it a go to appear to be less piecemeal about my posting. (It's like a muscle yeah? Keep exercising and it gets easier?) 

So first a wonderfully weedy post about the racial characteristics of Anime characters, exactly the sort of pop-culture/Genre fiction article I like to read. The cultural flow between the west and Japan has always fascinated me, almost as much as as how fans address the results on both sides of the cultural divide...

Second, a wonderfully restored video of a classic track and one that did mark a bit of a turning point in Britain post "Sergent Peppers". Youtube is a wondrous thing and it amazing the skill with which people restore and repost this footage (Often to as high or higher standard than commercial remasters) before it get's DMCAed into oblivion...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Who the Hell are you people? (and some focus)

So near the start of this year I discovered that I could no longer account for every bit of traffic that came through here. On the Internet that seems to be a good thing as it means people who aren't just my mom or girlfriend are reading what leaks out of my mind on these virtual pages. So.. introduce yourselves below :) (Or on Google+ seeing these things are now linked)
Also, been thinking about focusing this blog a little more on things pop culture/genre fiction based. Which means more reviews and weedy articles on genre, theme and other such things; and probably less politics? My need to write about politics has waned since irony died in 2010ish, plus I get a little bit more out of direct engagement with people via Facebork or Google+. If the need pokes me again a sub-blog shall emerge do not worry...
On with the show?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Death of Canon- Appendix 1 Star Wars novels

Hi again folks, people reading and no nerd death threats for my "Death of Canon" series. Thanks to all who have stuck with it :)
Honestly as an article it could be so much longer and more detailed and I do think I may re-work it into a more structured format in the future. But as a cherry on top the ice-cream I have found some cool stuff on wikipedia that is tangentially related to the topic. The wiki entries on the contemporary novelizations  of the original Star War trilogy annotate the differences between them and the finished films. This is interesting as novelizations are often based on scripts so they can be released concurrently with the film, so some of the differences were probably in the early versions of the scripts of Star Wars, Empire and Jedi. Links are below. The Star Wars and Jedi entries are very interesting in light of works written after and added to the canon.

and of course I mentioned it, the Star Wars sequel that never was:

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Death of Canon part 3: How I learned to stop worrying and love Kawamori-san

So far I have walked through what canon is in regards to genre fiction; some of its issue and how it is in most cases a construction of fandom rather than author. We left off touching on something I like to call canon entropy, the issues that arise when you add and revise too many elements of a canon.
The comics industry has been grappling with canon entropy since the 1990s, Marvel and DC had comic ranges that had in some cases been running plotlines for thirty or forty years. In the early 1990s Comics saw a new boom and often a new obsession with their own canon which was being more and more scrutinized by the now even more connected fanbase. Comics went through a long period of basically not caring about presenting a constant canon, but as comic book writing became more and more sophisticated authors quickly found it necessary to reset the cannon of their titles periodically. Why? Well over the course of stories characters change and die off, some of these are not popular while some are and there are only so many dramatic escapes and sudden reversals that are possible before the integrity of storyline is affected. (This was also caused by the explosion in the number of titles as well; in the 1990s I was following 4-6 X-men titles at one stage for example) These resets were occasionally done via in universe mechanisms (Events like Infinite Crisis or Onslaught to name just two) or sometimes just by issuing a new title that started the characters back from square one. (Marvel's Ultimate titles for example) Not everyone can be Perry Rhodan, long stories written by multiple authors experience issues with integrity no matter how good your style guide is. (Perry Rhodan is a German pulp series that to time of writing has been running for 2799 issues with a continuous story arc)
So where does that leave us? Canon in fiction becomes more and more problematic as the frame of the work expands. The proliferation of reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels causes issues for the purest, your favorite fictional universe theory is only as good as the next installment that is made.
Earlier this year I was lamenting Doctor Who and the strange place its fifty year canon journey has taken it, the rich universe which I felt had been a dumbed down a little in its Nu-Who incarnation.
Something else happened this year as well, I "Remembered Love"; that is I came back to a few Anime series that I loved years ago but had forgotten in my cynical 30s. (That and I had a distaste for what Anime was popular at the time) Macross was the series I came back to, quickly consuming it and it's sequels (yes all of them) after I came back from Japan.
That re-peaked interest in Macross started me reading some of the background history of the series and resulted in the creator Kawamori Shoji's elegant solution to canon issues. Taking a step backwards, from my investigations canon obsession is something that western fans do, fans in the east seem less concerned with this construction. In fact it seems normal for stories to be told over and over again; Journey to the West is probably the best example of a story that the Chinese and Japanese retell constantly in their fiction. We do it as well in the west but in Asia they are nowhere near as circumspect about it. Take a look at "Ghost in the Shell" for example; it was originally a Manga before being turned into a movie, then it became an animated TV series. These three iterations exist in mostly separate canons, and there is no fuss.. In fact the TV series is named "Stand Alone Complex" ; basically stating that it is "stand alone" from the rest of canon but using and exploring the same characters but with a totally different story and continuity. No one series needs to overrule the others, each is a story by itself which can be enjoyed alone. (And I have seen forums of western anime fans obsessively debating what elements of a particular property should and should be canonical) Now this generally doesn't happen when a series has a consistent author throughout (Dragonball or One Piece for example) but seems to happen when authorship changes.
But that doesn't come to the idea that enrages fan boys but set my mind at ease about Doctor Who and every other canon mishap I have encountered and described here. You see, Kawamori authored the very successful series "Super Dimensional Fortress Macross" in the early 1980s, he then followed up with movie version "Macross:Do you remember love?". Now the thing was, the Macross movie told the same story as the series but in a radically different way to fit to a two hour running time. They are both Macross, both by the original author but depict very different versions of the same events. Kawamori-san's answer was as follows: "The real Macross is out there, somewhere. If I tell the story in the length of a TV series, it looks one way, and if I tell it as a movie-length story, it's organized another way" Now he has elaborated on this answer since, probably best discussed here on the excellent "We remember love" blog. (sadly now closed) But in short every piece of Macross media produced is a piece of media within the Macross universe. These series/movies/OVA do not depict the actual events within a fictional universe, they depict a retelling of those events by people who live in that universe. It's a hard one to wrap your head around, but can be applied to almost any canon issue you come across without destroying continuities. Maybe the Star War prequels were a chunk of revisionist history? Maybe Doctor Who is a BBC series about this mysterious figure who shows up and saves the world every few months? Maybe the new Star Trek series is harsher and more action orientated as the federation populous is weary and cynical after the Dominion War and crave that sort of entertainment? Even crazier maybe Robotech and Macross 2 are works of speculative fiction created within the Macross universe?
What this theory allows us to do is keep the core of a fictional universe and enjoy or critique any media created within it on the merits of that media alone, or comparatively. Basically freeing us from the canon skulds but not nullifying their attempts to make Cyberman history work in a timeline. We can examine a series, book, movie, comic, game or slash fiction as we like, bringing dead worlds back to life or examining topics in our favorites in more depth. Naturally all within the bound of copy-write and trademark, I don't advocate producing commercial alternatives to the intellectual properties of other. But wouldn't it be nice to read Alan Dean Foster's "Splinter of the mind's eye" and enjoy it without being reminded as to how non-canon it is? Or Dark Horse's original Alien comic series? (which even had the space jockey aliens in it, utterly struck non canon by Prometheus, not to mention a living Newt and Hudson) So why not?
So yes, thank you Kawamori-san for freeing me from such a trap of hating Star Wars due to Jar Jar or Doctor Who because I thought some of the new eps were naff. I'm not sure if he as an author and creator is aware of how complex a universe he opened up with his comments to fans...

Till next time space cowboy....

Monday, October 28, 2013

Blogathon! - Argento's greatest hits- Phenomena (1985)

Argento is a name even the non-Italian horror fan knows, primarily due to the tremendous success of Deep Red and Susperia had amongst english speaking fans. Argento pushed the Italian slasher genre known as Giallo to surreal heights in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was noted for his strange lighting, thumping soundtracks and often nightmarish sequences set amongst stunning Italian architecture.
Phenomena is one of his works from the mid 1980s, after his peak and well and truly a child of the VHS age. It stars a 15year old Jennifer Connolly (just before Labyrinth) as well as Donald Pleasence in a post Halloween outing. It was released in the US as "Creepers" and follows the time old story of girl with psychic ability to communicate with Insects (Jennifer Connolly, also playing a character called Jennifer) is sent to a boarding in school in Switzerland where a serial murderer has run amuck.

The story follows our main character through her first experiences at a boarding school that seems to be at the center of a nest of secrets. The film opens however with a backpacker separated from her bus coming across a strange house and meeting her demise before shifting over to Jennifer getting settled in at the Academy.
After witnessing the death of another student whilst she is sleepwalking Jennifer falls from a balcony into the woods and meets the Chimpanzee nurse of a paraplegic entomologist John Macgregor (Pleasence) who leads her to the professor's home. Macgregor has been consulting with the police over the discovery of the head of the backpacker from the start of the film; determining time of death by the species of maggots found hatches in the flesh. Jennifer shares with the doctor her love of insects and the peculiar effect she has on them.

Phenomena feels like a lot of Argento's previous works and in many ways is a greatest hits compilation of his most notable cinematic concepts assembled in one package. That's not to say it isn't enjoyable, it has some great moments and tension throughout. It is less surreal than the films that proceed it but it still is blessed with some imagery that could come from few places other than Argento. (Chimpanzee nurse with an obsession for walking around with a Kitchen knife springs to mind)But yes the Boarding school, lone girl away from home, brutal killer, kitchen knives, strange subterranean lairs; all classic Argento. The colour pallet is a little more subdued than usual, dominated by greens and browns rather than the lurid colours he is famous for, as well as lots of light filtered through clouds or curtains. The only reoccurring element in his films missing is Asia Argento, but her mother is in the film so does that count as a missing element? It's sound track is also full of Goblin tracks, as well as tracks from Motorhead and Iron Maiden, giving the sound a suitably "Argento" feel.

Like all of Argento's films it begins with a brutal murder and in true Giallo tradition the killings become more and more bizarre and frenzied as the film goes on. Argento also does not disappoint with the horror imagery, from severed heads to insect swarms and pits full of corpses; they are still done effectively unlike his more recent works.  (Which seem to degenerate into dull digital gorefests, also known as DDGs by no one other than me.) It has a great emotive impact and at no point does it feel the need to explain it's bizarre or macabre elements which so often drags down modern films. It is not as effective or original as Argento's classics, it is still a great horror flick for those of you who have watched his other works and are looking for something new.

This review was part of the Italian Horror Blogathon over at  Hugo Stiglitz makes movies. Go over there and see all the other great (and not so great but fun) films being reviewed over there!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A brief but spooky interuption

I will continue my rambling analysis of Canon and Genre fiction soon (Just try to stop me intertubes! Bahahaha), but being October it is also almost time for the Italian Horror Blogathon over at Hugo Stiglitz makes movies! I missed last years but this year I am back with avengeance so watch this space... Or in fact the space above this one, or banner below and to the right :D

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Death of Canon pt 2 - Author Intent and Audience reaction

(The "short" piece on Canon and Genre Fiction continues; planning to do some work as well on the history of Genre as well.. but for now on with the show)

I always hear fellow fans say that it's easy to settle Canon arguments, it's all about Author intent after all. But is it? That works fine with a situation with a single Author (although what you do when said author looses it tends to get mumbled responses. See: Star Wars) producing a work of a fixed scope. (Harry Potter is good example of this, or Song of Ice and Fire) But Genre fiction is unique in that it is often "authored" by different people overtime even after the original author has passed away. This is due to format (Television tends to never be produced by a sole creator, Comics often have very long run times so tend to change staff etc) and fandom.

But first lets take a step back, a brief dip into the pool of Art criticism and analysis. The Arts have been dealing with the so called "death of the author" for the best part of the past century; as modern technologies produced methods of "authorship" beyond the lone genius at his or her easel. (In short it's mostly Photography's fault, but the printing press also takes some of the blame as well) This drove evolution of Art theory and in the post modern era things like context and audience started to become considered. In Art theory the Author's intent is only part of the story, the work's context becomes important with the real meaning of a work existing in an intangible place between the work itself and the audience. Divorced of an audience a piece of art becomes just an object, and a normally useless object at that. So a work has no meaning without an audience, and because an Author and an Audience can look at the same work and develop utterly different impressions of the work the sole ability to brand a work with meaning does not rest with the Author. This is not a science, the reading of the work draws upon the emotive and cultural reactions of an audience to the signs and signifiers within the work. (as well as how it is presented, which is why graffiti solicits a different reaction painting hung in a gallery) To keep this brief, consider the most famous work of Art; The Mona Lisa. Much is made of her mysterious smile; now we can assume the model knew what she was smiling about, Leonardo may have as well and it is seen by its modern audience as being part of the work's mystery. The true meaning of that smile is now utterly lost baring some additional discovery, it could just be that the model had an odd smile, it could be related the Illuminati or could be a joke by Leonardo. We don't know, we can't know, so it is up to the audience to project into that space created by the mystery of her smile. In that way the Mona Lisa is collaborative with its audience.

As I mentioned before immunizing Genre fiction from these concepts isolates it from the Arts in a wider context and unfortunately proves the point of those who write it off as a lesser form. Ultimately any work of Genre fiction is collaborative with the audience to some extent, the audience reaction fuels the length of a television run for example or determines how many extra trilogies you get to write. So isn't it fair to expect that any addition to canon be accepted by the audience on some level? Or are we forced to accept AVP when we watch Alien or Aliens? (or Predator for that manner) I'll go back to one of the early examples of Canon, the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft seems to have been quite anti creating a defined mythos for his works, he repeated names and concepts (arguably undermining his want for a lack of canon) between works but did not intent them to be expanded into a knowable mythology. The concept of the mythos and the relationships between concepts that are now very much pop-culture were created by August Derleth. Derleth not only crafted much of what we think of now as the Mythos; but he kept Lovecraft's works in print and maintained/expanded the literary circle that Lovecraft himself forged. It could be argued that Lovecraft's influence is largely due to Derleth's efforts to bring his works to a wider audience. But that was all against Author intent, in the world of canon borne only out of Author Intent there would be possibly no Cthulhu Mythos, just a group of loosely connected stories written by a single author.

So as you can see it is a sticky mess, and the larger a work gets and the longer it runs the harder it is to standardize canon. But why do we need to? In some cases the Authors themselves draw lines that create a story between works, and these lines can be soft or hard depending on the work. But that is the difference between a series and a canon. A canon stretches between series and envelops them in a bubble. So Babylon 5 is a series, it has very distinct lines drawn between episodes to tell a single story. Crusade is a separate series and exists within the same canon "bubble" as B5, they are lucky to share the same author. So that's easy to envision right? But what about the B5 movies? or Novels? or RPGs? All one bubble? Well that could cause continuity issues, even if you prune out all non-JMS sanctioned stuff, the pilot exists in two versions and what the hell do you do with "the lost tales"...? (Or the Crusade 2nd season scripts that exist? They are Author Intent, but they weren't shot, do they count?)

As we have Genre shows that in some cases have been running for 50+ years it becomes increasingly difficult to parse Author Intent. In fact very few long running stories have ever managed to keep their canon straight, changing authors and times make sure of that. Doctor Who practically manages by resetting the show with each Doctor, while some canon concepts remain the style and pace of the show changes with the lead actor. (and in many cases only a sliver of canon remains, Dalek history for example) I've even seen notable Who fans online argue that the twelve regeneration limit on Time Lords was a non canon concept as it was not in the show originally. (Yes seriously) Again boiled back to original intent, but how can you establish intent on a work that has had dozens of Authors? Many of whom are now passed? You can't so you need other methods of reading and reacting to interactions between works within the same "bubble" of canon.
More on that next time folks...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Doctor Who, Star wars, Star Trek and the death of Canon (Part 1' What the Heck is Canon?)

(This started as a single post idea but looks like it will become a multi-post monster like the Yamato review. As many of you know I am a fan of Genre fiction and have a large degree of interest in the way that Genre, Canon and Aesthetics are used in modern fiction, so this is likely to be the first in a series on the constituent organs of modern genre fiction. Enjoy)
As a sci-fi or fantasy fan we have all heard that dreaded cry "But that's not Canon!" from fellow fans, blow hards on the internet and know it all writers in print (or web) magazines. As we in the west continues on its trend of reinventing or "rebooting" popular (and not so popular) properties these discussions of cannon have become more and more intense and seem to be culminating in the writers of said reboots taking to the internet to abuse the annoying nerds that give them money...

So what is canon? Why do we care? Who started this idea and why is it so important to fans?
Well the term literary canon refers to rules or principles that govern works in the field of art and philosophy. It is a middle English term that derives from Latin and earlier the Greek Kanon and refers to "an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture" according to Webster's and has been expanded to include the authoritative works of any Author or part of a series or group of works. In a very naive way the Bible has a bit in common with modern genre fiction and the idea of canon; after all the early church did eject a whole bunch of oddball fanfic from canon when putting it together. (See the Infancy Gospels ) 
Canon became a concept associated with popular genre writing way back in the early part of the 20th century with the growth of Sherlock Holmes fiction not authored by Conan-Doyle. It has since become applied to any fictional series, most often where there are contributions by multiple authors or sources. The Canon is the series' official history and lore, and was taken very seriously by fans even before the intertubes were in existence; Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series had a cannon issue just after his death with the story"John Carter of Mars" penned by his son and the Cthulhu mythos arguably gained a canon after being supplemented by August Derleth. (The man who coined the phrase in the first place) 
But like many internet obsessions the modern Canon wars have their origins with Star Trek; as a series it only went for three years but it reached an incredibly large audience via syndication. (150 domestic US channels and 60 internationals) Star Trek was able to develop a fan base that was more wide spread than its contemporary genre fiction compatriots. Trek had fanzines from 1967 and its fandom exploded after the cancellation of the series and its journey into syndicated success. Programs like "Doctor Who" and "The man from UNCLE" had cult followings as well, but the cancellation of Trek had unique impacts on the series canon. Unlike its British contemporaries it saw an increase of material not generated by its principle authors; it also had a series return in a different format in the form of the 1970s animated Star Trek series. Trek was seen by many in the 1970s to be a dead franchise as far as Television was concerned; Roddenberry had attempted unsuccessfully to relaunch the series in the 1970s with his Star Trek Phase II project so there was almost no "Canon" material until 1979's Star Trek: The motion picture. Movies however did not settle the nebulous state of Trek Canon (I'm not sure they can, but more on that later) as the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan saw more fan fiction, roleplaying games and novels produced and so by the time Star Trek made its return to television its canon stabilized. (Or did it, again a teaser for later..) 
So what I hear you ask? You need to think of fictional canon a bit like a tree, if we take the Star Trek example the Original series is the tree trunk and its offshoots are branches. Some are very large and strong; Next Gen is an example of this, but each branch germinates more branches as the canon grows. Fan generated canon in the 1980s for example generated its own offshoots (look at the Star Fleet Battles board game as a good example of this)  many of which have nothing to do with the "official" canon, but some of these little chunks of canon get re-grafted higher up the tree at much later dates. (Such as some of the Romulan cultural material from the novelizations) 
Many are fans of the idea of regular pruning of the canon tree, cutting away the weaker branches so only the strong "sanctioned' branches can survive. This is what I like to call the Roman approach to fictional canon; in honor of the Romanisation (ie. writing down) of Christian canon. The content creator or owner has final say in this vision, fan material is fine but it will never be part of canon. In other cases under this model branches are viable until the interfere with the "sanctioned" branches and are then trimmed bansai style to ensure the shape of the whole tree. Alien and its comic book offshoots are an example of this, the Dark Horse comics books were officially sanctioned by the content owner but fell into non-canon status when later films directly contradicted them. (eg by killing Hudson and Newt in Alien 3) Star Wars operates much this way as well, with a layered approach to canon; each more "real" than the last till you get to the current releases of the films themselves. (also problematic in this case because Lucas kept changing them.) 
Again I hear you say; so what? The content creator should have final say over his universe by gum! Yes and no, this idea of the lofty creator handing down canon from the mountain top is desirable because like all desirable ideas it is simple. However such an approach basically immunizes Genre fiction from some of the very basics of art and art criticism and places it in exactly the place that its critics put it. (As popcorn fed trash for the masses) Genre fiction is better than that, and that is what I hope to unravel for you dear reader and explore how and what canon is made up of and why the "Roman" approach does a disservice to us all as fans. Even the less extreme Bansai trimming approach in Star War's case gives us: 
  • Jar Jar Binks is more cannonical than Admiral Thron or Mara Jade
  • Han Shot second, or at least simultaneously with Greedo
  • Boba Fett died like a chump
  • Jango Fett (father of Boba via cloning) also died like a chump
  • Anakin Skywalker built C3PO

(To be continued...)  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Over it

Not much about tomorrow's election on this here blog space you may or may not have noticed. Honestly I think I was over the impending cluster-fuck that will be tomorrow's likely conservative victory for at least twelve months now. (Even if Labor can win, just like last time they will meet screams of being illegitimate etc. Unless that victory is overwhelming) Oz politics fatigue big time for this little black duck. As I've stated before, I'll be voting preferencing Labor as they are the less bad alternative of the major parties. (Plus I vote in one of Labor's safest seats, so things are unlikely to shift on my vote)
Sadly the bill of sales from both sides are faulty; but while Labor is trying to sell us a DVD release of a major film listing the menu and chapter selection as "special features"; the Coalition is selling us an Asylum release in 4:3 pan and scan...

(That's possibly the nerdiest analogy for politics ever)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How John Howard destroyed civilisation as we know it.

Ok so I admit the headline is mostly hyperbolic in nature, but I was via the Australian Skeptics Facebook page quite shocked to hear the nature of one of the "fatty" programs that the Howard Government saved us tax payers from in the quest for their moronic budget surplus.
In 1996 John Howard defunded Australia's program to track Near Earth Objects, ie space rocks like comets and asteroids, in the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. This is a totally sci-fi nerdy concern I know, but if the previous three posts prove anything, I'm a bit of a sci-fi nerd. (Also I am aware of the irony of writing a post about the dangers of asteroids after talking about Yamato so much)
Phillip Adams wrote a great piece about this in April; and I have to echo his sentiments, if there is a danger to the public that a government can help prevent it is its absolute duty to do so. Especially seeing research like this is relatively cheap into totally budgetary terms.
This action, canning a "minor" scientific program to save a few $million is a symptom of what today causes large chunks of society to ignore the threat of anthropogenic climate change. It's not in their immediate fiscal interest to do anything so let's not bother shall we?
I'm waiting for the Asteroid deniers to step up to the plate.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Be Forever Yamato: What I'm watching at the moment (part the final): Space Battleship Yamato (1974)

So like the Yamato we come to the end of my Space Battleship journey. (Except that Yamato 2199 still has four episodes to go, oh the waiting is killing me!) I chose to rewatch the original series in Japanese , a feat easily achieved via youtube. Yamato was the beginning of the now very famous Space opera genre of Anime and the return to the genre internationally in a televisual media. So what is Space Opera? Where did it come from?
Space Opera refers to a dramatic, adventure centric form of science fiction that existed in the Golden age of the early 20th century. It was a growth of the "planetary romance" genre that Edgar Rice Burroughs made famous with his Barsoom series and is often separated from this style by critics. (Planetary Romance eventually grew into what we identify as modern fantasy writing) After the 1920s it became a term used to label "bad" Sci-fi. (As opposed to Hard Sci-fi); and was often derided due its close thematic relationship with so called Horse Operas (Westerns) and Naval Romance novels. The 1970s saw the genre return, spurred on by Brain Aldiss's "Space Opera" (1974) it then came to dominate upon the release of Star Wars in 1977.
Also in 1974, across the pacific from where our western genre ideas are largely formed, Space Opera was being borne anew on the screen at the hands of Leiji Matsomoto and Nobuoru Ishiguro. Japanese animated series and Manga largely gravitated towards a few specific genres before Yamato; Super hero, Comedy, Childrens characters and Sport. The Sci-Fi that was being created in the animation and Manga houses of Japan were largely through the lens of super hero comics. (Gatchaman, Mazinger Z, Lupin II) Yamato represented a progression from this style of storytelling, reminiscent of the Naval inspired sci-fi of the 1920s.(If Matsomoto and Ishiguro were aware of such works)Rather than a person or group that transform into our hero (or who are unique heroic figures like Lupin), Yamato's "hero" is a ship and its crew; professional sailors. Yamato itself follows the tradition of "super weapons"in Japanese sci-fi but it is not concealed by any sort of secret identity, its crew are not everyday people who become heroes when the time is needed; no they are full time military men and women (well woman). Likewise the villians are not demons or monsters, they are another military force who have imperious designs on our Earth. Like many super weapons, Yamato starts the series concealed under the Earth, disguised; but once the ship rises it stays risen. Yamato does not return to the Earth awaiting next week's adventure.
Yamato's tale is a journey, which separates it further from the anime of the time which primarily represented our heroes reacting against an external threat. No the Yamato's external threat cannot be resolved in a single episode or by a single firing of the eponymous wave motion gun. Being a Naval drama essentially the battles the ship experiences are skirmishes; part of a greater war. Space Battleship Yamato is truly a lovenote to Japan's short but lost Naval tradition; there is even a short scene (not included in Star Blazers from memory) talking about the history of the Space Battleship's namesake. At the conclusion of this scene the narrator laments "the end of the age of the battleship and the birth of the age of the aircraft" that the original Yamato's sinking represented. Japanese nationalism was part of the reason behind the pacing and conceptual changes that Star Blazers underwent when it was transliterated for an American audience. The nationalism isn't particularly intense but it is there, hand in hand with Japan's post war pacifism. (There is for example a lament of war in the final episodes; Kodai lamenting the waste and stupidity of it all after Deslock devastates Gamilias trying to destroy Yamato.) Ultimately the Yamato is the main character of the series,her human crew are just lenses we the audience watch and relate to events through. The ending narration almost always talks about the ship, not the crew commanding Yamato to persevere for the good of mankind. "Rise Yamato, Rise!" is a classic line of narrated dialogue from the preview for the next episode, the cliff hanger being the ship had just been "shot down" and crashed under the ice of Pluto. The instruction is to the ship and crew and one entity, there is no "can the crew persevere?" or "Will Captain Otika come up with a plan?". No the narrator addresses the ship, and the ship alone with a command.
Yamato is an awesomely important series for a number of reasons, it is full of firsts that aren't obvious but when you start to look at history are quite ahead of their time. The depiction of space conflict as a proxy for Naval conflict has indeed been around since the 1920s, but Yamato takes a more directly allegorical tact. The earth space fleet is called the "Cosmo Navy" and its uniforms and language is distinctly naval. (Including calling destroyed ships "sunk") This allegory to Navy tactics gives us one of the first examples (possibly THE first, I can't find an older one) of the Space Fighter concept that is now central to space opera style fiction. Just think; Star Wars, Babylon 5, even Macross, the space fighter is front row center as a mainstay of the space opera. Before Yamato space ships tended to be rocket ships or hard sci-fi vehicles, there was little idea of capital class ships. Star Trek had some relationship with the Navy allegory, with the episode "Balance of Terror" being the best example. But while Trek had shuttle craft, they were little more than ferries to and from ships or planets, Trek did not introduce small craft designed for combat until Deep Space 9. The Space fighter is an integral part of ship conflict in Yamato, they fulfill the same role as aircraft do in Naval warfare. While smaller than a capital ship, the fighter is usually heavily armed and maneuverable, capable of sinking much larger ships and avoiding the guns of the capital ship. This brings the need to use fighters to defend against enemy fighters, which gives us dog fights which give us a healthy source of drama. Where would Sci-Fi be without this concept? George Lucas was referencing the same things as Yamato was in Star Wars, especially in the classic trench run scene. Even if he was unfamiliar with Yamato whilst working on Star Wars the same themes were playing in his mind.
As discussed last time Yamato gave us Deslock, the charismatic villain archetype that would be repeated in Anime to this day. It also continues the long tradition of robot characters in the form of Analyzer.
Minus the arms he does look familiar, a wheeled analysis robot...
In the new series Analyzer has quick become one of my favorite characters, he has a whole episode where he tries to teach humanity to a Gamilas android. He is more of a tool for the crew in the original, but less annoying than his Star Blazers "cute robot" post R2D2 version.
The biggest issue in the original series, fixed in spades in Yamato 2199 and the live action, is the female cast. There really isn't much of one outside of Yuki, who isn't much more than a love interest for Kodai. Starsha (the Queen of Iscander) is the other main female character of the series, but really little more than a goal than a fully formed character. This likely is more to do with the time it was written than anything else. (Japan still has more rigid gender roles than the west even today)

So I have completed my long journey to Iscandar 2 and a bit times (still waiting for the last 2199 movie to be released) and have enjoyed it each time. The new series is an amazing testament to the original as well as one that updates it without loosing the stories feel. Unlike so many reboots it hasn't been made more violent and darker in the hope of making it more adult; instead they have updated the visual style, added more depth to the writing and developed the universe more substantively. If you are a Sci-Fi fan it is worth a watch, if you are a fan of Space Opera and want to see one of the modern genres foundation elements; watch the original as well.

Till next time, Be forever Yamato.

Friday, July 26, 2013

What I'm watching now (Part the Second) Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

I must say the first part of this review was a little rambling because it was kind of re-purposed mid-writing. At first I had the brilliant idea of reviewing three versions of Yamato (Yamato 2199, The Live action film from 2010 and the original) to see the way that the three told the same story over a span of time. What I did discover whilst researching is how many now ubiquitous tropes and concepts of modern Sci-Fi seem to be formed in that 1974 animated series; so the review became a discussion of Yamato in a broader sense whilst focusing through the lens of its newest incarnation.
I'm going to move on with the latter concept, this time through the lens of the 2010 live action movie "Space Battleship Yamato" and then next time tie it all back to the original 1974 animation.
So on with the show.

My knee jerk reaction to what is wrong with the 2010 live action movie of the Yamato story starts and ends with this guy. Who is he? Well he is lord Deslar (Desslok in Star Blazers) the principle villain of the series; supreme ruler of the Gamalias empire. The problem with the live action film is that he kinda isn't in it... Deslar was possibly the first "Modern" anime villain (Berg Kattse/Zoltar in Gatchaman  maybe a precursor to some extent); charismatic, honorable, driven and intelligent, a far cry from the cartoonish villains normal for animation. He was such a popular character that he was brought back in the second and third series of the original show and becomes a hero.
Desler's history is beside the point, he was a strong character in the original series and represented a very human opponent for Yamato's naval based adventures. He had plans, he and his generals used all sorts of tactics against our heroes; the Gamilas were not just monsters-of-the-week but an opposing military force with all the dynamism that should bring to story. (Which makes Yamato 2199 even better; there they are developed much further, gaining internal political dynamics that would make Westeros proud.)

Our foe in the 2010 is sometimes called Gamilas but also calls itself Dessler but is a wholly un-pathos generating energy being able to occupy and control an army of quasi-biological ships and troops. It manifests once as a blue crystalline humanoid reminiscent of our beloved dictator of Gamilas, but this is clearly a nod to fans rather than anything story based.This narrative choice is one that is understandable to an extent; there is a lot of story in Yamato and telling it in 2 hours is almost impossible. But the lack of a more substantive villain sucks alot of the drama from the story; instead we have a relatively faceless threat to earth and an ok rejigg of the original series twist of the nature of Iscandar.
The film itself is a pretty good attempt besides my lengthy gripe above. It's a distorted mirror of the animated series, many of the elements are there but shifted in not very subtle ways. Captain Okita and Navigation officer Shima are probably the only two characters who remain basically unchanged. (Although Shima is in a much reduced role to make Oxygen for the Kodai/Yuki romance) Dr Sado is now female but still a drunk, Science officer Sanada is less logical and more just a senior crewman
and Yuki is now the ace of the Black Tiger squadron. (Akira Yamamoto and Kato are pretty much bit players here.) Kodai is; well Kodai is the main character and this is very much emphasized here to an extent that the original and 2199 did not. (I'll talk about this next time more, but suffice to say the ship is the main character in the original series) He is also an extensively changed character; he is this time a retired ace pilot rather than a raw recruit and his joining the Yamato is a controversial return to service. He is much more a bad boy than a wild card, and this makes him a less dynamic character; his experiences on the Yamato don't teach him anything much as he is already a veteran. Instead it seems to be more about him coming to terms with his dislike of Captain Okita (who was the commander of the mission that his brother died in) and through that his dislike of command. (Basically he doesn't like the idea of his commands risking his charge's lives) Analyzer is basically reduced to a pocketwatch that talks but gets it's full proto-R2D2 look in the film's penultimate action sequence. (In which he kicks ass)
The film is pretty and much grittier in appearance than the animated; you really do feel that humanity has been forced to live in squalor underground by the Gamillas attacks and the thread of hope seems even more tenuous as a result. The CG is very good for the most part, shown off in a number of very nice set pieces. The battle for Mars at the start is very effective, though the FX sequences get thinner as the film goes on. (The Gamilas shock troops are pretty disappointingly designed sadly, but the ships are all top notch)
That I think is the live versions biggest issue, it seems to get thinner writing wise as it goes on and begins to stray from the source material more and more. There is also a brutal round of character killing in the third act, which would have been more effective if the minor characters were better established. For example; The Black Tigers apart from Yuki are just the Kodai fan squad. Their main role is to tell us (the audience) how awesome Kodai was before he left the military, so we really don't miss them very much when they get shot down. Kodai does all the awesome stuff in his Cosmo zero, and all the other fighter plane heroism is left to Yuki to establish that she is an ace.
The other *big* problem is the ending sequence, lifted from the non-cannon movie followup to the original animation "Farewell to Battleship Yamato". (It was decannonised because it was very unpopular replaced by a retelling of its story in a second series of the TV series) But the final sequence has to be the worst paced of any movie ever, seriously. After returning from Iscander with the radiation "device" to cure earth, Desslar appears on the bridge to lament his defeat. (We see him in his only humanoid guise for the film here) He then basically decides to launch a missile at the earth to spite the Yamato; what proceeds is a full fifteen minutes of dramatics while the slowest missile in history plummets towards the earth. Kodai orders evacuation and then has three long dramatic conversations attempting to convince him not to ram the missile with the ship. Meanwhile the FUCKING MISSILE THAT CAN BLOW UP EARTH HAS BEEN LAUNCHED. Fifteen minutes! But no i need to convince the crew to evacuate, ok now I need to convince Shima to release navigation and evacuate and then I need to convince Yuki (Who by the way is the host of the energy being who can cure earth's radiation) that she shouldn't stay and die with me because THAT WILL HAVE THE SAME EFFECT AS THE BOMB HITTING EARTH. That whole sequence kinda messes up any merit the film had as it sucks all the tension from the piece.
Its a fun watch, with some nice FX sequences, but it is ultimately a flat retelling. The only thing worse could be a US version...


Friday, July 19, 2013

What I'm watching (In Three parts); Space Battleship Yamato 2199

Ok first things first; if you watched Cartoons in the late 70s and early 80s the following clip may well make you giggle like a kid again.

Yes that's right, they remade Battleship Yamato, aka Starblazers to us English speakers and boy is it pretty. I'm not normally one for reviewing or talking about Anime but a trip to Tokyo kinda does things to you and I have been consuming it a lot of late. (probably for the first time in ten or so years) So whilst there I discovered that Yamato was being remade and released in cinemas as a series of movies that would then be broken up into episodes for DVD/TV release. Instantly hit by the nostalgia stick I returned home to track down this new series. (as well as several others that I may or may not talk about)

For those who are not familiar, Space Battleship Yamato is probably the seminal work of late 20th century Japanese animation. The 1974 series marked that medium's shift towards a newer visual style and methods of storytelling. The series is also one of the pillars of the Space Opera genre, predating Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica by several years and possessing many passing similarities to those two works. (Plus we know Lucas was looking East when putting Star Wars together, the homage to Kurasawa's "The hidden fortress" is well known) Many of the elements Yamato included have become standards in Space Opera on both sides of the Pacific.

Yamato 2199 is a reboot/remake of the original series, all new modern animation and characters to bring the tale of the Battleship Yamato into the 21st century. The basic story remains the same as the original's first series; in the year 2191 earth has contact with an alien race for the first time. Unfortunately that race is the Imperious Gamilias (Gamalons in the west) who attempt to wage a war of conquest against Earth. After earth manages in turning the initial invasion back at Mars the Gamilias opt to instead bombard the earth with radioactive meteorites from a base on Pluto; the human fleet is depleted and no match for the Gamilias superior technology. Humanity is forced underground as the surface is devastated but that is only a temporary solution as the radiation slowly begins to creep into the underground cities. A ray of hope comes in the form of a communication from another alien race from the planet Iskander in the small Magellanic cloud, they offer humanity the schematics to build a faster than light ship and technology that can clean the devastated earth. However the technology to cure the earth needs to be collected from Iskander, so humanity places all of its efforts to build a faster than light starship that can pick up the life saving tech. That ship is the Yamato, and it's crew are charged with the long journey and have one year to complete it before the radiation will render humanity extinct.

It's a hell of a story, and the tension is increased by the traditional "count" to humanity's extinction at the end of each episode. (something they did in the 1974 series as well) The main cast is mostly unchanged but with a whole bunch of new secondary characters and some wonderful character writing. Unlike the original there is more than one (!) female character; Yuki Mori is also a little more than the Kodai's love interest as well! The new series also treats Kodai (Wildstar in English) very well, able to make him the young inexperienced officer without making him a jerk or shallow bad boy which is common with such characters in modern Anime. Secondary characters are numerous and almost all are given just that tiny amount of depth to prevent them from being cut-outs. The plot is also a little more complex, with the Gamilias being given a few extra dimensions as well as a side plot centered around the intrigues within their empire.
In a very interesting addition is the gender swap of of the fighter pilots Akira Yamamoto, male originally he is now a she in a very Starbuck from BSG way. The meta recasting of this character is quite brilliant and I suspect down to the involvement of Hideaki Anno (the guy behind Neon Genesis Evangelion) in the project. Anno has no formal role in Yamato 2199, but did direct the new title sequence (as seen above) and has always listed Yamato as his favorite anime series. The clever twist with Akira is in the character appearance and name.

Now dear reader, what other Anime character does she look like? A hint? The Kanji for "Akira" can also be pronounced "Rei".
The Japanese penchant for wordplay makes me wish I was better at it...
Overall its a fantastic retelling of a classic series, I think I have described it to my housemates as crack in animated form especially since the series isn't finished yet! Currently it is available on DVD from Japan, some of it on the youtubes and will be released in the west as Starblazers2199 later this year.
What I will be doing is also writing about the other two Yamato related media I consumed recently after running out (!) of the new series. First will be the 2010 live action version that I just watched on youtube and then a rewatch of the original series. (Thanks to Youtube!)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Everyone wants to be special here ; Conversion (2011)

Disclaimer first. I know and quite like the director, writer/star and other star of this little Canadian independent. In fact I was almost in it had my schedule in 2011 brought me into Montreal on the days of the week matching up with their shooting schedule. (It brought me to the right city just not the right three days of the week) So I can quite happily say with full confidence that this was the best film I was almost in I have ever seen. (That's a category bigger than one as well; like many people appendaged to Melbourne's goth/underground scene I could have turned up to the concert shoot for Queen of the Damned. I didn't and am not looking back and still hold the above statement to be true.)

Conversion is a self financed and produced film from Canadian writer Kate Macdonald and Director Dominic Marceau. Macdonald herself stars as Julia alongside Paul Ash as Seth, as a pair of thirty something friends stuck in deadend jobs. The film follows the pair as they attempt to forget their hated wage-slave jobs in the city's nightlife and each others company. One night however they miss the last metro home and are stranded in the city low on cash..

What proceeds that faithful event is a sort of suburban version of the Odyssey, as the pair drift between surreal set pieces whilst waiting for the dawn and their inevitable return to real life. This is all shot against the backdrop of the colorful urban environment of Montreal which is transformed into an everycity just as Seth and Julia are sort of microcosms of everyone who desires to be more than their 9 to 5. (The purposeful omission of landmarks such as the Montreal Olympic Stadium or the Neon Cross for example makes it hard to pick out what city the film is set in unless you have actually been to Montreal) What they encounter is the world that exists outside the gaze of the 9-5 day and in many cases are confused, frustrated and frightened of what they find in the neon-lit graffiti painted maze of the city.

While Paul Ash has some acting to his credit, (he is a notable standup comedian as well) the majority of the cast are not professional actors and the performances are good overall. The dialogue is witty and subtle, the production is top notch in all departments; the lack of budget almost never creeps in at all. Possibly the only criticism I can summon is the dialogue is very stagey in delivery; ie. Person A speaks, Person B speaks, Person A speaks etc. There isn't much cross talk and you can detect the slight pause the actors take allowing each other to complete their lines. But honestly the script itself is so good and the lines delivered universally well that you barely notice that structure.

Conversion is really a wonderful example of what a real independent production is capable of, it is a labor of love for its creators and it really shows in every frame. It is also, in a word that I have become increasingly fond of when describing film, very articulate cinematicaly; something that cannot be said for a large majority of films coming out now days.
Conversion is available world wide through Vimeo streaming. (Yes it even works in Australia which is unique amongst such services)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Oh no we spilt again!

I'm not going to write too much about the switch in leadership of the Federal Labor party and the return of K-Rudd to the prime minister-ship. For myself I see the act of voting to be largely a pragmatic act rather than an emotive one; the leader of the party matters little to me as I don't in most cases get to vote for them directly. What I care about is the policy direction that the parties will take and their relative likelihood of winning seats in our two houses of Parliament. The wonderful thing about Australia is that we have a preferential (or instant Runoff) voting system that allows us to in fact do both, protest and still lodge a pragmatic voting choice.
What do I mean? I don't necessarily agree with a chunk of the Federal Labor platform for example, but I agree with them much more than I do the Coalition. Now in many countries I could vote for a 3rd party, but if that party were to have a very low chance of winning by comparison I would effectively give the winning party I didn't like half a vote by denying their opponents one. In Australia however I can do both, vote in protest for a 3rd party and place a preference with the major party I prefer. Whats the use of this? Primary vote is a factor that people watch and should shifts happen Parties will often adjust their platforms to compensate. The primary vote is a measure of where the Overton window sits and as such is a useful tool in moving it without throwing half votes towards the major party you really don't like...
So even if you have some disagreements with them but don't want a LNP government; VOTE 2 ALP!
(The senate is different, may go into that one day. I just really get annoyed that we have a great election system in this country that most people don't know how to use...)

It is ultimately sad that Julia Gillard was forced out, she did not get a far shake from the media or the public and her term exposed some still very ugly strains within out culture. With luck her term will make it easier for the female prime ministers that will come after her.

But there are a couple of net positives from last nights events...The loss of Steven Conroy as Senate leader brought me no small amount of delight. Also it has shown Tony Abbott's total lack of balls, he is no longer as eager for a vote of no confidence now he has a parliamentary opponent who is both popular and relatively unbattered by the Murdoch puditocracy.

Tomorrow is another day...

Friday, June 21, 2013

It's not everyday you loose a true Master

I just found out that Jeffrey Smart died.
Often imitated by professional illustrators and paint students alike; Smart has been a prime influence on my (these days meager) artistic output. Smart is easily one of the most influential Australian painters and his flat , still, detailed urban landscapes are constantly reflected in our visual culture. (In the same tangential ways that we also reference De Chirco and Magritte in our zeitgeist)
Smart's work tackled with a realization that the larger Australian culture has still been almost incapable of doing even to this date; that we are an extremely urban nation.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I am (not) Iron Man aka. Review: Iron Man 3

Themed review today, I wanted to wait a little while as my thoughts on IronMan 3 are more than a little spoilerific. (So stop reading if you really care about that sorta thing) But why themed? Well good reader I have been a little ill of late (since returning from Nihon) and one of the primary symptoms of my illness was elevated iron, really elevated. So for a while there was a possibility that I was a sufferer of inherited Hemochromatosis, but I'm not apparently and the whole thing was most likely down to a case of glandular fever.

But anyway, onto a summer (for us) blockbuster review. (queue fireworks)

The Marvel films are a bit of a guilty pleasure for me; in the same way that so many people watch Hoarders or Doomsday prepers or one of the endless list of dancing/talent/singing shows. I was always a Marvel rather than a DC kid so seeing the characters on the big screen hits at some old neural connections of arguing with other kids about which brand was better. The new Marvel films adaptations are big glossy and visceral recreations of those Marvel characters I defended in the playgrounds. Not smart films but I don't think at any point do they try to be anything more than what they present themselves to be. They give me exactly what they promise, which is actually refreshing in these days of compulsory plot twists and pop philosophy being used to make up for modern film makers repeated inability to tell stories articulately.

The Iron Man films are really Robert Downey Jr. films. Tony Stark; much in the same way as Batman was shifted to fit Tim Burton's aesthetic in our culture, is now Robert Downey Jr. inheriting his snark and irreverence forevermore. Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is probably the last time a comic book character and an actor become this synonymous with one another, Christopher Reeve and Superman would be another. (Ron Pearlman was *so* Hellboy before the films :p But another good example) So while you could (and have) switched actors for Batman, the Hulk or any other member of the Avengers gang it will be hard to do Ironman without Downey.
The third Ironman film is designed to round off an Ironman "trilogy" of films and honestly is also a massive satire of the third film in the very serious Nolan Batman trilogy "The Dark Knight Rises". It is also written and directed by Shane Black, the man behind Lethal weapon and as a film it does feel much more like an 80s blockbuster than a 21st century one. There is a bunch of CG but it's used sparingly apart from the finale; for much of the film Tony Stark is without a functioning Iron Man suit.
The plot itself is very simple and made up from a couple of woven together strands. First the US is under threat from a Terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin who has made several attacks on military bases in the middle east and the US and taunts the president via cryptic videos. Second Tony Stark blows off a disabled vet, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce), at a party many years before he become Iron Man who approaches him with a Business proposal at a conference. Third, at the same conference Tony hooks up with a biologist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) who is working on a cellular regeneration technique that will revolutionist medicine. Finally Stark is suffering from PTSD after the events of "The Avengers" and his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is strained as a result. Killian and Hansen reappear in Stark's life, Killian trying to sell the discovery he and his company AIM has made to Pepper as CEO of Stark industries and Hansen trying to warn Stark of what Killian has used her discovery to create.
The film slow burns at the start, putting all it's pieces in place until Stark calls out the Mandarin and has his home and lab destroyed by a group of Helicopter gunships. Separated from his suits (kinda) and stuck in Virginia (the last place he had Jarvis plot a course to before the sudden attack) he attempts to uncover and stop the Mandarin with only a plucky kid as an ally. Fortunately Shane Black actually seems to like the material  he is writing and said plucky kid is used as a foil for Stark and blown off by our protagonist as required. (and those scenes that seem to build towards a schmaltzy surrogate father thing are quickly deflated in a number of amusing ways by Downy and the script)

This is where my theory about Shane Black writing what is basically a satire of "Dark Knight Rises" comes in. The basic elements (outside the Killian/Hansen plots) are the same as the Nolan film; Stark is a technologically brilliant, rich, vigilante with daddy issues. The threat is a charismatic, vaguely middle eastern terrorist who threatens to overturn the American way of life and always seems one step ahead of the authorities and our hero. The resolution however seems to speak to Nolan's o-so-serious Batman film directly. Stark is depicted here riddled with doubt, he is just "a guy in a suit" and he just saw "real" superheros fight an alien Invasion in the previous film. He sees himself as a weak link compared to the Hulk, Captain America and Thor, a far cry from the Bruce Wayne visits the doctor seen in Dark Knight Rises. Stark is actually worried about his own mortality on a subconscious and later conscious level, fighting bad guys is risky business.
The most controversial element is the Mandarin; a far cry from a madman with super scientific rings he is a quasi Islamic terrorist who wants to bring the US down for its wicked ways. Much like Bane he is wanted by the authorities but is always one step ahead, like Bane he wants to overturn society although the Mandarin's focus is not just one major city but the entire country. The Mandarin also seems to command fanatical loyalty from his followers and is able to take over public address systems such as television. Unlike Bane however, the Mandarin is fake, an actor used by the real villain of the film Aldrich Killian. At first it was a coverup to disguise the "explosive" side effects of Killian and Hansen's Extremis treatment for disabled soldiers. (apparently if a body can't metabolize the treatment it explodes...) The mercs that Killian/the Mandarin uses are fanatics because they are addicted to the treatment and Killian has expanded his scheme to encourage US defense spending. Like Stark and Bruce Wayne, our villain is a Defense contractor who is creating a crisis to boost his business. It is a flip on the evil league of shadows from Dark Knight Rises, the conspiracy isn't shady villains trying to fulfill a madman's legacy but a Defense contractor after a quick buck. (Oh and a corrupt Vice President) The film also has a plane scene akin to the Nolan film...

It's a good superhero film, the ending (with the dozens of Ironman suits vs Killian's superpowered minions) is a weird shift in tone that I felt jarred a bit. The film successfully managed to keep the effects understated but effective up to that point; but Tony Stark being rescued by Pepper at the end is a very cute turn around. Plus the end begs the question; if he had a dozen Iron man suits in the secret Vault under his house why didn't he get one earlier? Why did he and Rhodes go in Lethal weapon style when they could have both strapped into one of a variety of Iron men? Also AIM and no Modok? wtf?

Till next time...